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Despite changes, NCAA tourney still tops

March Madness may get a little less mad next year, as the NCAA Selection Committee changed the way it will seed teams. Instead of treating all four No. 1 seeds equally, the committee plans to rate them one through four, depending on how the teams performed during the regular season and in conference tournaments.

The case for the switch was made last season when Kentucky and Arizona, clearly the top two teams in the nation, were placed in the same half of the bracket. If both had advanced, they would have met in the National Semifinals instead of the final game. Since neither team made the Final Four seeding seem a moot point. Sometimes things find a way of fixing themselves.

Until now, the semifinals were predetermined, with the four regions (East, West, South, Midwest) rotating opponents each year, regardless of the teams in each individual bracket.

The committee stopped short of adding any more teams to the irregularly balanced 65-team tournament, in which there is an opening round (don’t say play-in) game for one region and none for the other three. If they added three more teams to the tourney tournament (for a total of 68), with each region having a play-in (oops) game, then they could have three more at-large berths for deserving teams, and make it easer for the committee to include mid-major programs into the event. And having both 34 automatic bids and 34 at-large berths has a nice, symmetric ring to it.

Also rejected was a re-seeding process for the Final Four. Re-seeding would involve changing the natural flow of a bracket, so that the highest seeded of the four teams would always play the lowest, with the two in the middle pit against each other. Such a move would be disastrous to bracket-fillers everywhere, for re-seeding the Final Four would alter the layout of brackets.

For example, if the No. 1 team from the East goes to Final Four, along with the South No. 2, West No. 3 and Midwest No. 4., then No. 1 would play 4, and 2 would play 3. Makes sense. But if the Midwest No. 2 gets to the Final Four, then they would play the South No. 2 instead of the East No. 1. Confused yet? So am I.

This kind of re-seeding has been used in the NHL playoffs the last few years, with questionable results. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks, the seventh seeded team in the west, swept the second-seeded Detroit Red Wings out of the playoffs in the first round. What was their prize? A date with the No. 1 seeded Dallas Stars in the second round, since the Ducks were the “worst” team left and the Stars the “best.”

Such a scenario makes it unjustly difficult for a lower lower-seeded team to make it to the finals. The NHL instituted the change because the so-called lesser teams kept making it to the Stanley Cup Finals. (This format was supposed to keep teams like the Ducks out of the Finals, but don’t tell them that; they got there the hard way.)

It also takes a lot of the joy out of seeing upsets in the playoffs. Imagine if the unheralded Villanova and N.C. State teams that won NCAA Basketball titles in the ’80s had to play No. 1s from two different regions in the Final Four. It would have made it less likely to see Rollie Massimino and the late Jim Valvano running wild after their teams pulled off upsets.

It’s safe to say a large percentage of those who watch the tournament watch because they are in some kind of monetary pool, be it in an office, dorm, barracks or fraternity. These pools support the ratings of the tournament and get people in Texas to care about Syracuse and people in Chicago to care about Arizona. Re-seeding would shoot the number of potential outcomes for brackets into infinity, and make filling out brackets seem more like filing taxes. Because they didn’t re-seed the Final Four means the committee kept us fans in mind when making their decision, and has kept March Madness the fan-friendliest post-season around.